Bright Ideas: O Facebook What Art Thou?

Here’s the latest edition of Bright Ideas where we take a look at changing Facebook relevance may mean to content, storytelling and marketing. Also, why is BuzzFeed doing tote bags? And new jobs for great people. Subscribe here:

Bright Ideas is a biweekly(ish) newsletter sharing ideas and updates on content strategy and storytelling for advocacy and social good.

O Facebook, What Art Thou? I’m not going to make the case that Facebook is going away. At least not anytime soon. But the obstacles it faces, largely challenges of its own making, should be of enormous concern to any nonprofit campaigner, fundraiser or leader. (And present exciting opportunities for positive change, I hope.)

First, let’s look at how anti-user Facebook’s core product, the ad manager (ha, I mean the news feed), has become. Despite Facebook’s self-proclaimed return to being a place for friends in 2018, it’s pretty much a visual (and targeted) classified ads platform. Example: at 4 pm last Wednesday I pulled up my Facebook feed and scrolled through the first 25 posts. Twelve were from pages I’ve followed at one time or another. Five were ads. Eight were from people I know. Five of those were straight up reshares of page content with no context.

So much for friends.

Second, the world that analyzes these things is full of stories about declining Facebook use among people under 25 and Europeans, among others. This parallels data about falling interest in the US. Meanwhile, Facebook does seem to have followed through on its promise to deprioritize news by sending less traffic to media sites – a hit to online publishers that’s unlikely, in the short term, to do anything about public trust in media.

Where does that leave us? In the short term, probably in the same place we’ve been for a couple years now. Facebook is huge and any organization willing to put real resources behind the creation and advertising of engaging content that can help bring people (and their data) to Facebook is going to be okay.

But can nonprofits as well as media orgs (including nonprofit journalism) continue to rely on social media to drive growth and visits to their websites? And can nonprofits (and even the consultants surrounding them) continue relying on a platform that seems okay absolving itself of political, social and human collateral damage?

Hey, I’m on Facebook. It’s complicated. But somehow I think we need to aim for more human-scale relationship building that don’t outsource targeting of lookalike audiences to an unregulated corporation.

That means, I think, more tools people can use to create news and fewer platforms for sharing news. More members and fewer audiences. More teaching people to tell stories and less talking about storytelling.


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Can tote bags save journalism?

Just say no to Trumpian Drift. How advocates, journalists, leaders tell stories of migrants and refugees says a lot about how society views citizenship and basic human rights. Masha Gessen urges journalists to choose their words and stories with more care because the scale of problems facing us requires smarter – and more scaled – reporting. She points this out in the quote below and it’s important for advocates to be aware of this, hold media to account, and to also be very conscious of how every story is framed in their own communications:

Like most coverage, but perhaps more than most coverage, the writing about immigration has been suffering from what I think of as Trumpian drift. Journalists casually use terms like crossing the border illegally when referring to asylum seekers—when in fact there is no law that says they must use the ports of entry. Journalists increasingly buy into the framing of immigration policy as a strategy for preventing people from entering the United States. And then there is the conspicuous use of the words caravan and migrant to refer to people fleeing for safety.
– Masha Gessen


Adding value by adding values. This is a headline I can get behind because I see nonprofits, unintentionally in most cases, making pitches for financial support and action that reflect the righteousness of their work as though it’s assumed every member or reader had a hand in creating their theory of change. Ben Terrett writes about how successful product design does a great job solving user problems but often shows no regard for public values (using the apropos and timely example of scooters littering most major cities).

Nonprofits and civil society are – or should be – modeling inclusive behavior that helps all consider the impact our work has on the whole community: the powerless, not just members, wealthy donors or the loudest voices. Thanks to Paul de Gregorio for sharing this one.


The constant pressure of tracking everything is burning out journalists. And I know that many activists and campaigners feel the same way as reporters John Crowley spoke to for this piece at Nieman Lab. A few things: (1) Stop reporting on Trump’s tweets. They exist only to overwhelm media bandwidth and make everything about him. (2) We hear a lot about tech solutions to info overload, turning off notifications, and self-care. All good (phone notifications are truly evil). But, as Crowley points out, much of this is driven by management and leaders who support systems that place professional and personal value on constant work.


Does climate fiction lead to climate action? Only if readers are also accessing cultural messages that effective action is possible. Researcher Matthew Schneider-Mayerson surveyed US readers of 19 works “cli-fi” to understand how climate storytelling may help shape advocacy and opinions on climate change.


So…who actually does what in high-performing digital comms team? Every organization is churning out content. Very few are well-staffed for it. The good folks at Contentius put together this smart field guide to content roles.


Get your BuzzFeed tote bag now. It’s free when you make your $100 membership payment. Pretty cynical tone to this piece by Christine Schmidt for NiemanLab but it seems meaningful that a private media company with a household name is scrambling to try every membership experiment it can. Curious how membership as a BuzzWord hooks on here but I’m rooting for the great writers there.


This great little piece from Transparency International shares five ways to help people engage in campaigns. It’s insights that go beyond anti-corruption activism to support most any issue and the communications around it. All orgs could benefit from a user-centered focus on accessibility, safety, relevance, credibility and responsiveness.


Anyone going to (or involved in) the #Reframe Conference on Mental Health and the Media? Looks interesting!

Do good work

A few great roles at the intersection of digital, content, creative and campaigning. Have one to share? Click reply and let me know. Have an idea of your next perfect role but not finding it? Send me a note.

  • Chicago-based Hearken helps newsrooms listen to and engage the public on the way to building public trust and stronger stories. They’re hiring US-based engagement consultants to work with their 150 (and growing) clients. Engagement consultants should have newsroom experience but, as the description says, “please don’t be discouraged if your title doesn’t include engagement-related words.”
  • Free Press has several campaigning/organizing roles open: Campaign Manager, Online Community Manager and Digital Manager. Free Press is leading the fight for net neutrality in the US by, in part, engaging tens of thousands of volunteer activists. The team is based in western Massachusetts, Washington, DC, and remote locations around the US.
  • New Citizenship Project is doing smart work helping orgs and campaigns engage people in more meaningful and powerful ways. The London-based group is bringing on a Strategist. Check it out if you’re over that way.
  • United for Iran is hiring a Civic Technology Program Director based in Berkeley. Great group and should be a wonderful opportunity to do innovative work. Note: must be fluent in Farsi.
  • I don’t know much about Communitas America but this Program Manager role that will run coworking and a social venture accelerator looks super interesting. Based in the Bronx.
  • Greenpeace is filling two Media and Digital Analyst roles to guide the global organization’s tracking and learning from social media, news, and all the other bits that fly around the internets. Flexible location.
  • The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is hiring a DC-based Digital Director.
  • Campaign Legal Center in Washington, DC, is hiring a Multimedia Strategist.
  • The BlueGreen Alliance is hiring a Denver-based Colorado State Coordinator to grow and run the Alliance’s work there.

Here’s a google spreadsheet full of job lists, email groups and online job boards where you’ll find roles like these posted. It’s editable (for now) so feel free to comment or add a resource.

What’s on your “you should read this” list?

Here’s a short version of mine. Read either of these? Have anything to add? Hit reply and share what you’re digging into (or at least hoping to with any theoretical extra time).


Question? Idea to share? Let’s talk. Reply or email

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Power-full storytelling for change

Can we create powerful (and “power-full”) storytelling for advocacy that shifts power to people and communities so they may better control the change they seek?

Power-full storytelling

The “traditional” framework for advocacy storytelling is built around persuading those who aren’t directly affected – or who aren’t currently engaged – to empathize and act. This is a good way to go when what you need are people to write Congress, come to a march on Washington or give you money so you can do more of your good work.

But persuasion isn’t about power. Persuasion acts on those not affected. Somewhere along the way it’s possible—too easy, really—for the change that needs to happen to be disputed, watered down, stalled in a committee. Meanwhile, real people go hungry, real homes sink into the ocean, real wildlife lose a place to live.

Philanthropy may recognize the power problem

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, recently wrote Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough in the New York Times. In it, Walker calls on the philanthropic community and, perhaps, a broader economic and political establishment, to not simply address the effects of inequality and injustice on society but to solve their root causes.

Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation wrote about the Foundation’s decision to focus on systemic change and supporting transitions to a new political economy in choosing how to direct its support of climate change advocacy.

It’s not a new idea to social justice advocates: We can (and should) feed the hungry but wouldn’t it be more prudent to tackle systemic causes of inequality and poverty that are leading to a growing number of hungry families and children each year?

Pressuring the System or Shifting Power?

Advocates and campaigners can do much more to tell the stories of people impacted by inequality, poverty, hunger, war or environmental disaster. And many are doing just that with interviews, personal histories, photos and video, and other narratives that tell stories of the impacted and less powerful in their own voices.  Recent work by Humans of New York tells the story of refugees to help fundraise for the community. In the film @Home, activist Mark Horvath interviews dozens of homeless people, family members, and others in the community to tell the story of homelessness from the perspective of those living it.

Continue reading “Power-full storytelling for change”

Three ways to stop wishing for a big campaign

In the movie Big, Tom Hanks plays 12 year old Josh Baskin who puts a coin in a magic wish machine at the amusement park arcade one summer night and asks to be big. Nothing happens after making the wish so he heads home and goes to bed.

Be big

You know the story. Josh wakes up the next morning and is, well, BIG (and played by Tom Hanks).

Sometimes, your campaigns go big. You probably didn’t plan for it (though you may have wished for it). The ride may be fun but it’s probably not what you expected.


Sometimes, things don’t turn out as you hoped. You didn’t raise much money. New people didn’t stick with you. The media didn’t respond as you hoped. The big suit doesn’t always fit right — you may walk away disappointed but a bit wiser.

Big. And not so fun.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question “What does it mean for a to ‘go big’ if you’re a nonprofit?” What is a viral campaign? That’s because I’m organizing a session here in Denver with the folks from Tech4Good titled Going Viral: The Ups and Downs of Hitting it Big. The program is tomorrow so you’ve probably missed it.

We don’t have to find Zoltar and wish to be big but we do need to know what “big” is, tap into what helps make campaigns go big and be ready when it happens (even if it’s not as dramatic as in the movie or the ice bucket).

So… What IS Big?

When it’s really big you know it. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was big. Very big.

Google trends - ALS
A 12 month Google search trends chart tracking ALS and Obama searches. The ALS spike is reminiscent of the Super Bowl and other huge national events.

Continue reading “Three ways to stop wishing for a big campaign”

3 Reasons to use Yelp and TripAdvisor in your social media and outreach campaigns

Taken a trip lately? You’ve likely used sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp to research places to eat, sleep and visit. You’re not alone. Yelp received 138 million unique visitors in the second quarter of 2014. TripAdvisor sites currently receives 280 million visits each month. The sites are highly trafficked by millions in the US and around the world looking for information and/or willingly writing up reviews and sharing photos.

Yelp and TripAdvisor (along with similar crowd-driven travel sites) are treasure troves of content that can help those of you working on place-based advocacy and outreach. The sites come up high in search results, provide user-generated content that can accurately describe what people are looking for and doing when visiting a place, and are themselves communities with highly engaged participants.

Here are three ways to take advantage of crowdsourced travel sites.

Use Yelp and TripAdvisor’s search result superpowers to reach new and interested audiences

Example of place-based search results. These Google results for Point Lobos show Yelp near the top and no advertising.
Example of place-based search results. These Google results for Point Lobos show Yelp near the top and no advertising.

Crowdsourced travel sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor are content rich, linked to from across the web and optimized to perform well in search. Google a national or state park and you’re likely to see a TripAdvisor or Yelp entry near the top of the results. The Point Lobos (a state natural reserve in California) search results here are an example.

This demonstrates the power of the search strategy used by these sites. In many cases, though, it also provides an opportunity to reach very interested audiences: people planning to visit an area. Often, nobody is advertising around online searches for parks and other natural places.

Use this as an opportunity to test search ads (hopefully using a Google Grant so the cost is zero). People are looking for things to do, sites to see, best adventures in the area and maybe even current events. Build a set of search ads around those interests and offer content that meets these needs. You could even ask people to fill out a form and provide an email address to receive information. Simply put, though, it’s a quick way to drive people to your content (instead of having them go straight to Yelp). Continue reading “3 Reasons to use Yelp and TripAdvisor in your social media and outreach campaigns”

Don’t be the coyote: Falling retention rates can be stopped

Recently, Blackbaud’s npENGAGE blog gathered tips on how nonprofits can do a better job keeping donors on board from some of the best fundraisers around.  Your mileage may vary but each insight offers a little piece of gold bound to help at least a little bit. I was struck, however, by the general message: “you need to do a better job engaging people, acknowledging them, and being genuine, loyal and transparent.”

Retention rates will fall as predictably as Wile E Coyote if you don't understand why people support you and focus on those likeliest to stick.
Retention rates will fall as predictably as Wile E Coyote if you don’t understand why people support you and focus on those likeliest to stick.

The message is true and the tactics presented are solid but it’s not enough. We we need to understand why people enter the organization, recognize that many aren’t going to stay, and build fundraising strategies with likely long-term donors in mind. Organizations also need to structure their acquisition and fundraising programs (online and otherwise) for strong collaboration between staff that handle acquisition and long-term retention.

Donor retention is headed downward with a sort of Wile E Coyote falling off a cliff predictability.  Blackbaud’s head science guy, Chuck Longfield, reports that new donor retention is around 27% these days. Retention keeps falling while the incentive to keep people on board grows — acquiring a new donor costs five, six, seven or times more than keeping an existing donor.
Continue reading “Don’t be the coyote: Falling retention rates can be stopped”

Creating the most important organization in the world by caring for your members

Care about branding and marketing at your organization? Then care about your members.

This tweet by Troy Theodore Wruck shares a quote from Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich should be pinned on the wall of nonprofit directors.

At every nonprofit, a lot of money, thinking and time goes into serving the mission, the issue, the clients. And, usually, a lot goes into branding exercises, strategic plans, marketing materials, building social media followings and email lists. Perhaps much of those resources are focused on the wrong set of people.

Typically, not much goes into serving and supporting those members, fans, followers, or even donors. Many organizations with hundreds of thousands of members have just a few “member services” staff. They often don’t know their members and messages to them are rarely, if ever, intended to create conversation.

These are the people that already like you. Don’t just ask them for money. They’re not valuable to you. Your organization is valuable to them. Meet your mission and help the people, creatures or places you serve. Of course.

But focus more on valuing the people that already support you and you’ll be able to better serve your mission.

Behold the greatest threat yet to nonprofit organizations

Nonprofit organizations face countless obstacles in their quest to protect the environment, improve education, tackle economic injustice, and otherwise help society.

Death Star poised to destroy nonprofit email
The Death Star – aka George Lucas’s early version of the Gmail tabbed inbox.

This is tough work, friends, and these days, as we gaze at computer screens or phones we are probably looking upon the most significant hurdle yet: Gmail’s tabbed inbox.

That’s the story, anyway, from a few recent nonprofit messages and news stories.  Jeff Bezos’s new project, The Washington Post,  has a story titled Advocacy groups want out of Gmail’s ‘promotions’ ghetto. It includes a snippet from a New Organizing Institute (NOI) email containing one of the best (if overwrought) lines in email history:

Now some of you might love this new organization of your inbox, that’s great! But many important advocacy emails (like this one from your friends here at NOI), could get lost in the commotion of all these new tabs – silencing our voices like those of the poor souls on the planet Alderaan.

The email went on to let people know how they could get rid of the tabbed inbox or slide NOI email into the primary tab so that future messages would appear there.

Not to be outdone, the international advocacy campaign group Avaaz sent a message to subscribers titled “Huge threat to Avaaz.” Here’s a bit of that one:

Avaaz email informing subscribers about the threat from Gmail.
Opening of a recent Avaaz email about Gmail’s tabbed inbox.

There is some debate about the impact the tabbed inbox is actually having on email response. MailChimp crunched data from millions of messages sent through its system to Gmail addresses and concluded:

What bothers me in this case is that open rates stayed down for 3 consecutive weeks. From looking at a year and half’s worth of data, I can say that kind of behavior isn’t normal. I’m not willing to declare an emergency just yet. After all, I don’t even know what the adoption rate is on Gmail’s side. However, I would say this is an early indicator, and we’re definitely keeping our eye on it.

Not exactly a call to evacuate Alderaan in the face of massive Imperial threats but perhaps we should be concerned. It’s worth noting that MailChimp looked only at open rates, a high level metric that doesn’t correlate to conversions (though it can be useful in spotting trends over time with large amounts of data).

ReturnPath has also taken a look at Gmail data using inbox placement and read rates. They found that already engaged subscribers are reading messages more often but read rates are down in general.

So,  what to do about tabbed inboxes?!

The tabbed inbox is simply Gmail’s next step in a long progression towards trying to give people what they want (or what Google thinks they want). They know that most “mass” email is ignored and have been shifting towards engagement based ways of inbox placement and advance management for years.

I don’t begrudge any organization from making an effort to get its messages out of the promotions ghetto and into the Primary tab. It’s definitely worth testing, at least.

But the people that are going to take this step are likely those that were already engaged with your messages anyway. In some sense, raising alarm about messages not being in the Primary tab misses the point. If people want to read your emails (and care about your issue and what you have to say) they aren’t going to suddenly stop because your messages are in a tab two inches to the right.

Better to emphasize action, engagement, and value to the reader in every single message. The tabbed inbox is not the biggest threat to your work.

Note: We would love to talk to any organization that has tested and crunched Gmail data in the past couple months. It would be great for others to know what’s working, what’s not and if there has been a measurable impact on actions taken and donations given. 

Offline community is where the power happens

It was with great interest and some amusement that I read a piece by Andy Ellwood in Forbes titled (ironically, I think) Could Offline Communities be the Next Big Thing?

Occupy Monopoly
Offline community action via Flickr user Conskeptical

After all, it was only a couple decades ago that the public consumption Internet was just getting rolling. Up until that time all “communities” were, you know, happening in real life – that’s what we now call offline. But the thing is that community – civic groups, clubs, political interest groups, just neighbors getting together – was languishing at the time.

People were, as Robert Putnam described, spending a lot of time bowling alone instead of collaborating in and around their community.  This, Putnam argued, sapped citizen engagement and weakened democratic institutions (which may be continually weakening for a variety of reasons – discussion for a later day).

Ellwood’s piece in Forbes profiles several examples of offline communities strengthening entrepreneurship in the United States and abroad. Startup culture is driven by people supporting one another. It’s just about impossible for one person alone to move from seemingly brilliant idea to functional company. You can read blog posts and connect online but real progress needs time and trust of the sort that happens in person.

There is a lot of talk about online communities in the nonprofit world. Rightfully so. Engaging and supporting your social media, email, and supporter communities is important. But real changes to behavior, community decision making, and public policy require we invest in offline networks (see this recent story from the Greenpeace Mobilisation Lab about Washington Bus for a great example of offline/online working together). Offline community – it’s where the people are. It’s where empathy, reliance and trust mix together in that mystical recipe for power.


Annoying your list works except when it doesn’t

This goes in the category of things you probably shouldn’t adapt from the Obama campaign for your organization.

Annoying annoying-email-wonkaA friend sent me an excerpt from Wednesday morning’s Politico Playbook. It amounted to an excerpt from Jonathan Alter’s book The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (to be released on June 4th) that focused on the Obama digital team’s email strategy, fundraising, and the value of extensive testing.

The Obama campaign tested most everything. As Alter describes, they  even (wisely) ran tests against their experience and hunches. As the campaign progressed the need to raise more (and more) money became more (and more) pressing. Good sense and experience told the email team that too much email would annoy people to the point of tuning out, unsubscribing or maybe just not voting.

You know what’s smart? Testing the frequency of your emails.
Continue reading “Annoying your list works except when it doesn’t”

Power of the people: Acknowledge it

We send thank you notes to donors and good organizers do what they can to thank their activists and volunteers. But it seems difficult for groups to acknowledge the power of the people – the huge cross-section of regular people that give up their time – that together make our work bigger and better than it could be if we were just staff out doing our work.

A friend, Apollo Gonzales, recently shared the story of a project he started when he worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Apollo and his team wanted to recognize and acknowledge the people (and their power) that made NRDC’s advocacy successful. Apollo tells the story best:

Before I left NRDC in 2011 I started a project that was aimed at telling the story of how our advocates and members were a major force in the work we were doing. I wanted to tell a story that told the importance of people power. I interviewed staff who I knew had been with the organization for a long time, and who I knew had a passion for how people drove the victories we were winning. This story took shape as a video, and for a thousand little reasons we were never able to get past a script and story boards. It was the one thing I regret not having finished in my time there. Yesterday, my dear friends at Giant Ant sent me the final version.

The resulting story, Loud Voices Together are Heard, is told in a wonderful video produced by Giant Ant and narrated by Shane Koyczan

Continue reading “Power of the people: Acknowledge it”